The Persistence of Palms in Los Angeles

Palm Sunday -- when the pious receive a rib or two of pale yellow-green palm frond -- is April 13 this year. I'll be handed my fragment of palm by an usher at church, to be awkwardly held or folded into my jack pocket and forgotten there.

The adept in the pews during mass plait theirs into a cross -- a symbol bridging Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

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Palm Sunday in Los Angeles briefly elevates the ubiquitous Mexican fan palm to something sacred. During the rest of the year, fan palms are just part of the landscape and not always appreciated. Kevin Roderick complained at LA Observed:

This native Angeleno has finally seen one too many palm trees. Granted, it has been awhile since I have lived elsewhere. Maybe I'm overdue. But some palm trees are just out of place, and for those we're starting a photo series ... I'll call Ridiculous Palm Trees.

Palms have a complicated history in Southern California (as Nathan Masters recounted on this blog). They intersect with the cultural ambiguities of an Anglo city dressed up in Latin exoticism (as Janet Owen Driggs noted).

Jared Farmer's Trees in Paradise explored palmy Los Angeles even more broadly, and in an interview earlier this year with Nathan Masters, Farmer argued:

Thanks to the entertainment industry, Mexican fan palms acquired associations with sex, glamour, and celebrity. As it happened, the city's roadside plantings achieved spectacular heights in the same era that Hollywood became a dominant force in global entertainment. All of those thousands of films and TV shows shot outdoors in postwar Los Angeles cemented an association in people's minds: tall, skinny palms = L.A. Mexican fan palms became the icon of verticality in the postwar metropolis, complementing the freeway, the icon of horizontality.

When I wrote about one of the city's oldest palms trees (now in Exposition Park), I found its history to be a lot like ours. That palm, I thought, came from somewhere else, moved around a lot, acquired significance from its different jobs, did some bit parts in the cavalcade of the city's self-promotion, took something from a nostalgia not entirely earned, and found a place finally to call home.

Spring is a season for endings and beginnings, and some of them are on my way to and from my cubicle at my City Hall in Lakewood. Back in 2010, I wrote about some palms in front of a building down the block from City Hall that have renewed themselves year after year. Their persistence continues.

I pass by a slowly dilapidating office building, I wrote in 2010. It's a mean little box of a building crowding the sidewalk, separated from the concrete by a sliver of mostly abandoned landscaping. I occasionally pass a man and a woman poking at the weeds and ivy with shovels and a hoe. The man and woman aren't gardening. They're keeping the ivy and the weeds at bay.

I've passed by the building so often without looking that I'd forgotten what has taken root in the strip of landscaping -- five small Mexican fan palms.

The man and the woman return to the front of the building from time to time since, and each time the five palms -- the tallest was originally about five feet -- have been lopped off, made crownless; sawn, I suppose, with a power tool. Cut that way, the stumps presented neat concentric cores of palm rolled as tightly as a watch spring.

I don't know what the distracted gardeners thought they were doing. Their repeated decapitations didn't kill the palms outright. In a few days, an inch of pale blade rose from the palm cores. Within a week, longer curved frond segments spiraled up from the cuts. The frond segments turned a sickly, greenish white, added more height, bent outward, steadied into tropical green, and unfolded as bright green fans.

This happens once a year now, although two of the five palms had given up their annual renewal by 2014. The other palms remain. I do not take their persistence as any sort of message. Nature isn't a metaphor for me. Nature doesn't offer me hope. Palm Sunday is a mistaken triumph, it turns out.

But the returning palms in their narrow space are beautiful while they grow. They were oddly beautiful while they lingered crownless. The palms are beautiful again and again.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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